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‘A Common Word’ in the News

Saudis in move to improve image of Islam

Saudi Arabia is
sponsoring a two-day United Nations conference in New York to promote
interfaith dialogue to improve the image of Islam as a religion that
favours dialogue over violence.

The conference, which begins on
Wednesday, is seen as part of the Saudi monarch’s efforts to promote a
more moderate brand of Islam in a kingdom that has been accused of
breeding extremism since the September 11 attacks in 2001. By
sponsoring interfaith events, King Abdullah may also be hoping to
advance the debate over radicalism within the kingdom.

W. Bush, US president, and Gordon Brown, UK prime minister, are among
those listed to speak. Shimon Peres, Israeli president, and Tzipi
Livni, foreign minister, will also attend.

“The dialogue comes at
a time when the world is criticising Islam,” the Saudi monarch told
local media. “It is regrettable that some of our sons have been tempted
by Satan or the brothers of Satan.’’

Last year the king met Pope
Benedict XVI at the Vatican; earlier this year, he arranged a
conference of Muslim sects at the holy city of Mecca and, in July, he
presided over a gathering of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and
Buddhists hosted by Spain.

The Vatican, however, is sceptical
about the merit of the New York summit and concerned that the issue of
religious freedom for Christians in Muslim countries, particularly
Saudi Arabia, which permits no churches, will be pushed aside.

Jean-Louis Tauran, who will represent Pope Benedict at the UN and heads
the Vatican’s interfaith efforts, said in a recent Reuters interview
that “too many” Christian-Muslim initiatives were sowing “a bit of
confusion”. However, he also praised King Abdullah for his courage in
acting in spite of opposition from fundamentalist religious leaders in
Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom, the birthplace of Islam, adheres to
the puritanical Wahabi Islam and fares poorly in international reports
on religious freedom because it does not permit the open practice of
other faiths and restricts or brands heretical other Muslim sects,
including Shia, Sufi and Ismaili.

Some Saudis remain sceptical as
to the local benefits of such a dialogue, however, particularly for the
estimated 1.5m to 2m Shia living in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern
Province. Jafar al-Shayeb, a Shia activist, says: “They fulfil the
purpose of improving the image abroad, but locally, we need an internal
dialogue with a clear mandate to eliminate sectarian discrimination.”

Human Rights Watch urged world leaders
in a statement on Tuesday to pressure King Abdullah to end
discrimination against religious monitories in the kingdom. “There is
no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia,’’ says Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle
East director at the rights watchdog. “The dialogue should be about
where religious intolerance runs deepest, and that includes Saudi

Additional reporting by Harvey Morris in New York and Guy Dinmore in Rome